Eric Ohena Lembembe: Not Again, or Never Again?
[This essay was originally published on the author's blog, a paper bird.]
They found Eric Ohena Lembembe’s body four days ago. He had a title and he had attracted praise before, and more praise has accrued to him now that it does no good. He was executive director of the Cameroonian Foundation for AIDS, and he fought not just for the right to health but for the other rights of people vulnerable to the virus, LGBT folk among them. He was brave, he was visible, he was gentle, he was outspoken. If you have ever seen a tortured body, you know how little this language signifies against the violence of somebody’s flesh being broken.
Eric Ohena Lembembe.
They discovered him at home; he had been missing for two days. The door was chained, but, staring through the window, his colleagues saw his corpse. His neck was snapped. The murderers had used a clothes iron to burn his limbs and his face. When I think of him I don’t think of his titles or his bravery. I only think of him suffering pain: intense pain, perhaps coming in sharp blows or perhaps in mounting waves, pain large enough to extinguish everything else in the world. The measure of how nobody deserves that is exactly that nobody can understand that. The pain blots out explanation or description. It is necessary to say something, in the end, but first one must think of the pain.
A necessary thing to say, once words restore their hegemony, is: It’s not the first time. I had the same thoughts of pain when David Kato’s body was found in Uganda in 2011. David was a slight, almost breakable-looking man: when he got excited, which was often, his body shook like an aspen with the intensity of expressing himself. The killer had beaten his head in with a hammer. There is a great, long poem about the First World War; toward its end a soldier reflects, in a moment when pain makes time stop, on the shell that has just struck him:
He thought it disproportionate in its violence considering
the fragility of us.
The violence is out of all proportion to our human weakness. Yet the killings keep coming.
I used to say: those who talk about the body and its rights face revenge upon their bodies by those who hate them. Perhaps that’s too pat, but there is something in it. The torture Lembembe underwent is what forensic examiners sometimes call “overkill,” defined aseptically as “wounding far beyond that required to cause death.” In many jurisdictions it seems to typify murders of LGBT people. The standard explanation is that hate drives the surplus violence. But a more excruciating economy than that is probably at work. You make your body support a politics; I make your body suffer pain, and die of it. Isn’t that what they were trying to say not to, but through Eric Lembembe?
Lembembe died in Africa, of course. But there was nothing uniquely African about his death. Western press coverage falls back almost instantly on “African homophobia” as an explanation, painting the whole continent as one entity with a single culture that is unvaried, implacable, and impervious to history or distance. It’s “a notoriously homophobic continent.” ”Gay rights face an uphill struggle throughout much of Africa,” Time intoned (click Time’s link and you’ll find that Africa is largely about dead gays, mass murder, elephant poaching, and Mandela). This is hardly new. A few weeks ago an American paper was warning of “An African Epidemic of Homophobia” (add epidemics to Time’s list). And so on.
But Lembembe didn’t die of something both diffused across all Africa and distinctive to its “culture,” any more than Mark Carson, gunned down in New York City in May, died of a cultural pathology infecting all the rotten traditional communities of North America. For years reporters have been asking me what is “the world’s worst place to be gay.” The expected answers usually are a) all of Africa; b) all of the “Muslim world”; c) Jamaica. The question isn’t just reductionist, it’s racist. It assumes that all gay people’s experiences in a country are alike and can be assembled for insertion somewhere in a sliding scale. It assumes that homophobia is uniform across particular countries or cultures, and that you can rate the places like the Rough Guide. It takes a picture of monolithic and exclusionary cultures that Russian nationalists, African traditionalists, and American fundamentalists could all go jismic over — and combines it with a nineteenth-century race theorist’s facility in ranking all these on a ladder, leading up to white liberals in pith helmets on top. (There’s even a poll out now asking fools what they think are the world’s least gay-friendly countries, with Iran victorious by virtue of bad publicity.)
But any place –Stockholm or Amsterdam or San Francisco — can be terrible if you are gay and poor, or gay and a member of another group that people don’t like. And Kingston, Teheran, and Yaounde are perfectly safe for plenty who have power, position, or money. No “culture” has slapped a copyright on the idea of murdering LGBT people. It happens in Kathmandu and in Montreal. Eric Ohena Lembembe’s death should not blind us to other horrors, less conspicuous and less known although — or perhaps because — they may be closer at hand.
What’s happened in Cameroon for more than seven years is a moral panic: a moment when social and political anxieties — usually fears about rapid change — grow too intense to find release through argument, and turn to a hunt for scapegoats. Moral panics are not “cultural” eruptions from primeval magma. They’re always political. They enlist political actors (journalists, pundits, religious leaders, intellectuals, police, politicians themselves); almost always politicians instigate them, or try to manipulate them. This is especially true of panics around sexuality and gender. “Panic,” Gayle Rubin wrote a long time ago, “is the political moment of sex.”
Sex is a charged question everywhere. It’s an easy way for opportunists to define their enemies. In Cameroon, the furor arguably dates to 2005, when a few newspapers launched a campaign to expose a homosexual “conspiracy” in high places, outing allegedly deviant celebrities. There was obscure political scheming behind the defamations. It created a miasma of public uncertainty and fear, though, in which stripping away secrecies became a civic duty. The ensuing years have seen mass arrests, trials, blackmailing, threats, violence, and now murder.
The most “African” thing about the long panic in Cameroon is precisely its political side. Public figures since Robert Mugabe in the early 1990s have figured out how to wield homophobic rhetoric for distraction, division, and support. Cameroon is only one more country (think Namibia, Zambia, Malawi, Uganda, Kenya, Senegal and more) where whipping up fears of sexual corruption has become a collective sport.
When the first shock of Lembembe’s killing recedes, it’s easy to let the repetitiveness dull you. There’s the recurrence of homophobia: the same political gesticulations and demonizing sounds, the same gibbering scarecrows set up to appal. And there’s the recurrence of death. A lot of us have our private mourning lists unscrolling in our minds: Fanny Ann Eddy, David Kato, Lawrence King, Vanesa Ledesma, Cynthia Nicole, Ebru Soykan, Daniel Zamudio. About now is the time some people get orotund, and say sententiously: “Never again.” Another voice in the mind, though, between exhaustion and despair, wheedles instead: “Not again. Not this again.” As though you know it will be this inevitably, again and again. More death.
From left to right: Fanny Ann Eddy, Lawrence King, Cynthia Nicole, Daniel Zamudio.
My question is: What can we do?
That “we” has two sides. LGBT movements worldwide are divided in resources and perspectives. There’s a difference between the groups that say they work “internationally” — mainly meaning they are based in North America or Europe and identify themselves by their synoptic view — and groups that, even if they work extensively across borders, don’t look quite so international because based in the South: Latin America, Africa, Asia, the Middle East. They have different capacities, monies, and power. In preventing violence and murder, they have different responsibilities.
I’m interested in the internationals, because, of course, I’m one of them. I worked for IGLHRC and Human Rights Watch for almost twenty years. I have a fair idea how international groups think. They’re like anybody else: a triumph happens – a sodomy statute struck down, or discrimination banned — and they’re more than happy to assert their share of credit. When a catastrophe takes place – an activist murdered, a bad law passed – they condemn, but don’t guess whether they might have done something different. You know what people say. Victory has a thousand fathers. Defeat is a Russian orphan; the law bars gay groups abroad from adopting it.
Almost from the beginning of the panic in Cameroon, international organizations descended on the country. (Many had paid limited attention to Cameroon before the gay issue came up.) Human Rights Watch did joint letters with Amnesty, IGLHRC, and other organizations, including Doctors of the World and Physicians for Human Rights. In 2010 a joint report came out, authored by Alternatives-Cameroun and l’Association pour la défense des droits des homosexuels (ADEFHO), together with HRW and IGLHRC. Earlier this year HRW produced another report, with ADEFHO and Alternatives-Cameroun, and Eric’s organization CAMFAIDS. Amnesty International featured Cameroon in its recent analysis of homophobia in Africa. All Out announced petition campaigns, and praised itself for their impact. IGLHRC has its own roster of letters and press releases on the country. Surely, then, one should be able to say what this accomplished. I stress that I was involved in much of this — I oversaw HRW’s early interventions in the situation, including the research for the 2010 report. So any critique must criticize me.
But has this been a great success? If it were, Eric Ohena Lembembe would not be dead. The murder of a leading movement figure — and the brutal “overkill” with its message of revenge and loathing — means, whatever else we may have accomplished around the edges, we’ve failed at something. Something central.
The questions for me are twofold: how does the discourse change, how does the discussion shift, when you internationalize a situation like this? and what does “security” mean when your whole work is about making human rights stories — and activists and actors — more visible and exposed?
First, international actors worked in Cameroon, of course, at the request and by and large under the guidance of domestic activist groups. The 2010 and 2013 reports in which Human Rights Watch joined were if anything unusually collaborative for an NGO that is used to going it alone. Our partners, ADEFHO and Alternatives-Cameroun, were extremely clear in setting out what they did and did not want us to do. The problem was not with the terms of the relationship (ADEFHO and Alternatives, of course, might disagree), and certainly not with the guidance we got. My question is rather whether international groups’ engagement carries hidden costs — ones that can only be seen by testing whether their agendas, the terms in which they frame things, are really responsive to other realities.
For example, there’s the idea of “equality,” which comes up again and again in the responses to Eric’s murder. “Eric’s activism paved the way for a society based on equality and nondiscrimination,” says Human Rights Watch. ”The global movement for love and equality is poorer for the loss of Eric Lembembe,” says All Out. “Equal rights” was an important term in Eric Lembembe’s advocacy, as well. But did it mean the same thing?
There was a time — as little as ten or fifteen years ago — when the LGBT movement as a whole talked about “equality” in a constellation with other values like privacy, and dignity; when it also talked about specific rights, like expression, association, and assembly, as well as the rights to health or livelihood. That’s over. The big gay gurus now rattle on about “equality” as if it subsumes them all. It’s a master key that explains everything we apparently want, and you don’t have to descend to talking about specific rights at all.
In fact, the internationals know what equality means: there’s a road map hidden in the word, with a general understanding that it leads through anti-discrimination laws toward relationship recognition and marriage. Never mind that marriage is exactly the prospect that inflames the intensest opposition in large quarters of the world, and that foreigners throwing around “equality” language in those precincts may be juggling with Molotov cocktails. “Equality” has become the be-all and end-all of LGBT aspirations in North America and Europe.
The US State Department, for instance, has set up a public-private partnership “Global Equality Fund” to govern its giving to LGBT causes. This is christened after the Council for Global Equality, an NGO set up by excellent friends and colleagues of mine to lobby US diplomacy for … well, equality. “Equality” is the only term in which the most powerful government in the world envisions LGBT rights.
It would be hard to say that the USG has a vision of global equality, though: at least, one that extends to the percent of the world’s population who, not being LGBT, aren’t eligible for the fund. US foreign policy is not based on reciprocity among global citizens. We have, after all, a world order where the US can send drones to kill Pakistanis unimpeded, while Pakistan certainly can’t do the same to the US.
U.S. torture victims.
And one needn’t turn to Great Game geopolitics to wonder what “global equality” is about. Take the question of humanitarian aid from rich countries to poor-–which a number of governments and international organizations would like to see tied to whether the poor countries treat their LGBT people equally. Of course, humanitarian aid is itself a function of an unequal world, a way of palliating its inequalities. Tying that aid to political conditions is a stark reminder of the political inequality between peoples. And enforcing those conditions and cutting the aid will make economic inequality worse.
From an African’s perspective, it might look suspiciously as though rich governments are willing to make some people less equal in the name of making others more so. How did those folks get to be the favored beneficiaries of equality, whereas these aren’t? Obviously some are more equal, or at least more global, than others. You can understand why most African activists have rejected aid conditionality as a way of achieving rights. But leaders like David Cameron keep babbling about it. And as long as they do, resentment over why the gays get this extra dollop of equality denied to others will multiply: not because of what African activists themselves are doing, but because of how their international friends try to help.
Nor is it just government policies that raise doubts about what “equality” means to the West. Non-governmental organizations create similar confusion. All these groups believe enthusiastically in formal equality before the law. When it comes to economic equality, or even to the social conditions that make legal equality real, they sometimes stare slack-jawed as though they have no idea what one means. Human Rights Watch used to have particular insecurities about approaching economic rights. In a famous or notorious article, Ken Roth, the executive director, suggested back in 2004 that poverty was not a structural problem at all: “poverty and severe deprivation is [sic] a product less of a lack of public goods than of officially promoted or tolerated policies of social exclusion.”
In other words, the difficulty is not with the recipe for the pie, or the men who bake it, or the oven in which it’s made. Nothing about the economic structure in which the pie is produced keeps it small. Other bakers aren’t monopolizing the ingredients. The pie is fine. It’s just that somebody is dividing this mini-pie up wrong, so that one group or another doesn’t get its negligible bite.
The result was that Human Rights Watch committed to dealing with poverty – in rights-ese, the denial of economic and social rights – not as an economic issue, but as a matter of discrimination. Poverty was bad if some people were deliberately made poorer than others. In this model, you could talk about the right to education if certain kids – children of ethnic minorities, for example, or children living with HIV/AIDS—were denied schooling. You couldn’t talk about policies that threatened all, or nearly all, children’s access to education, though: policies like privatizing schools, or the school fees or exorbitant textbook prices that international lending institutions loved to impose on Africa. Because those applied across the board, they weren’t issues of “social exclusion.” The pie was simply made that way, that’s all.
In fairness, almost the entire organization tacitly rebelled against this argument. Human Rights Watch’s reports on kids’ education back then, for instance, reveal researchers finding all sorts of ingenious ways to urge that school fees were excessive, or unnecessary, or should be “reconsidered,” or lifted in nearly all cases, without actually writing that school fees were wrong. This kind of casuistry helped salvage the organization’s reputation in many places, including Africa. But the economically uninformed picture of poverty that underlay it hardly went unnoticed. It pointed up the fact that “equality” meant something different to HRW than to almost every activist in Africa. And the problem is that the more your agenda as a local activist got identified with HRW’s, the more your own articulation of equality got subsumed beneath this partial and impoverished one.
I have some experience with LGBT rights activism in Africa. And I find the way its diverse goals are represented, not just in the media but by its international partners, often reductive and distorting. There are a great many LGBT activists who don’t see some broad “equality” agenda as standing for their struggles. They want specific things: the right to privacy, say, represented by repealing sodomy laws; the right to associate, represented by registering an organization; the right to expression, enjoyed when you can give an interview to a radio station without fear of reprisal.
The nebulosities of “equality” as Westerners bloviate about it aren’t nearly precise enough. There are activists who see formal, legal “equality” in the Western sense as simply a cover for neocolonial forms of segregation and domination, a substitute (as arguably it’s been in South Africa) for deeper, radical social transformation. There are activists who feel that “equality” in relationships can only be achieved by exempting them from the patriarchal state’s regulation, not getting them a far-off seal of repressive approval. And there are a lot of activists who would say that it’s destructive to talk, for example, about “LGBT equality” in access to health care when nobody has access to adequate health care. “Equality” for them does not mean some particular protection for LGBT people; it doesn’t just mean remedying “social exclusion”; it means changing the rules of the game. It means comprehensively redistributing goods so that all sectors of society can obtain them. It doesn’t imply privileging those groups who can make “discrimination” claims that Western actors will recognize.
These are only a few of the positions out there. All these disputes take place at a time of extraordinary economic flux and chaos in Africa. What Achille Mbembe wrote in On the Postcolony is still true: there is a “crisis of the taxation system, shortages, and population movements,” and it often looks like “simply a struggle among predators.”
Meanwhile, below the state sphere new forms of belonging and social incorporation are gestating, with the formation of “leagues,” “corporations,” “coalitions,” and so on. There is no doubt that most of the religious and healing movements proliferating in Africa today constitute visible, if ambiguous, sites where new normative systems, new common languages, and the constitution of new authorities are being negotiated.
There is a “heteronomous and fragmented conception of the ‘political community.’ The basic question, of the emergence of a subject with rights, remains unresolved.” But exactly because of this ferment and uncertainty, assuming the Western vision of formal legal equality encompasses a solution is both stupid and premature.
However. It’s very hard for this fertility of ideas, which so informs what happens in African movements, to filter into what international organizations do. There’s no mechanism built into their board-governed systems to listen or respond. My fear is that, because the internationals have the discursive power, what African (and other) activists are doing will get further identified with their HRC-sticker agendas.
It’s easy to predict two results. The internationals’ interventions will be ignored — unless they grow addicted to relying on Western governments’ economic leverage, which will only discredit LGBT issues still more. And many African LGBT movements will look more isolated from their countries and peoples, rather than more integrated into the collective pursuit of justice. There is still time for the internationals to enter into a dialogue with Southern partners with a view to more open and flexible definitions of a rights agenda. It’s not happening yet. If it doesn’t, I can tell you what the consequences of isolation and stigma will be: More blood. More pain.
Second: Visibility leads to violence. It’s a lesson that (to return to what’s happened in Africa) twenty years’ experience should have enforced on everyone. Again and again, the first time somebody came out or was outed or made a public statement about LGBT identity in a particular country, a ferocious backlash followed; lives were destroyed. Zimbabwe! Zambia! Uganda! Kenya!
This didn’t happen (to repeat) just because of some cross-continental cultural pressure for conformity. It happened, by and large, because some players knew how to exploit the spectre of sexual difference, and gin up fears for political ends. They had models for doing this, furnished ready-made from Mugabe on down. The dynamic of panic is reproducible. As with an earthquake, it’s hard to tell exactly when the backlash might break out or the violence begin. But as with an earthquake, you can predict that, precise dates aside, it’s coming.
From the beginning — with Mugabe’s attacks on the Zimbabwe Book Fair and GALZ in the early 1990s — international organizations have largely intervened to publicize these episodes, which started with publicity, still further. That’s the main thing international human rights groups do, after all: their work is predicated on faith that shedding light and telling stories are the foundations of change. A cycle of publicity starts, with exposure leading to more exposure. The victims and the local activists both become more public.
I could hardly claim to see this with disapproval. It does, however, place a responsibility on international activists. Having shed the light, they are liable for the consequences. Their obligation is, as far as humanly possible, to ensure the safety of those they work with. It’s particularly salient because most international human rights organizations claim special expertise on issues of security, transcending local knowledges about safety and defense. They talk about it regularly. They raise money for it.
I’ve seen international groups promising to protect the security of LGBT activist partners for twenty years now. We’ve done a shamefully incompetent job.
Some things improved in recent years — there is more funding for security, there are more experienced organizations involved. Some individuals devote their time to helping with security concerns. But these small marks in the ledger haven’t stopped the deaths. If they had, Eric might be alive. Human Rights Watch used to say that defending the defenders was at the core of its mission. When did this become defending the defenders after they’re dead?
Everybody agrees vaguely that LGBT activists face distinctive dangers in many places. But no one, so far as I know, has even tried to analyze systematically what those dangers are, how they’re different, or what can be done. As for the risks endured by “ordinary” LGBT communities, not just rights defenders: the serious studies of how they could be countered can be counted on one hand.
And there is thinking about this that goes on among local groups! Just this afternoon I sat with a couple of Egyptians who brainstormed innovative approaches to provide some protection for people who look funny — not “masculine” or “feminine” enough — in downtown Cairo. There’s more imagination there than the big human rights groups have evolved in years. For most of us on the “international” side, the reflex reaction when confronted by an activist in danger is: Get her out of the country. Escape substitutes for protection. The asylum system –unwieldy, prejudiced, deeply flawed — serves as the nearest thing we have to a security plan for the international LGBT movement.
On the other hand, half the time when I hear LGBT people from North America or Europe talking about LGBT asylum, I want to pound somebody’s head, possibly but not necessarily mine, against a well-built wall. The subject brings out the worst fantasies in Western gays’ imaginations. All too often they feed on the needs of asylum-seekers, for a vampirish, sanguine satisfaction. There is, on the one hand, the dream of being a savior without going anywhere, of staying securely at home while rescuing some helpless subaltern from her own society. There is also the sheer pleasure of seeing one’s own country exalted, as the abode of freedom and the goal of others’ aspirations.
The rhetoric can be Dickensian in its mawkishness, and patronizing to the point of racism. “We helped save a 19-year old Iranian!” Or: the poor victim “has NEVER been accused of a crime, except leaving his homeland to come to America. He was shunned by a society that wants to kills gays. He is an orphan and has no one.” Lucky you: “We can give one gay man … the gift of freedom.” That some asylum-seekers are desperate is beyond doubt; that emotional excess can energize an appeal is at least arguable; but reducing them to emblems of abjection only redoubles the humiliation they have already suffered. That this self-indulgence also lets people suppose they are doing something constructive for the security of LGBT movements around the world is hard to bear.
Particularly self-congratulatory is the rhetoric that asylum for LGBT people — or anybody — “saves lives.” Just for the record, it doesn’t. Asylum can often save biological life: one reason why it’s absolutely necessary. But that’s not the same as saving lives, saving the way people live as connected and implicated beings in their cultures, contexts, communities. It’s exactly this that exile destroys.
Asylum can keep your physical existence going at a distance from those who want to kill you, but it can’t give you back that connectedness and system of meaning, that way of living. To the contrary. Almost any asylee will tell you that exile is a social death, and there is no easy way to rebuild a lost vocabulary of values or a syntax of belonging in a new country. Asylum is suffering, not hope. This is why hardly anyone ever seeks it casually or lightly, and why so few claims actually are fraudulent. Who would inflict such an amnesia and amputation on himself with so tenuous a prospect of recovery, unless there were absolutely no alternative?
And it’s this social death that — contemplating the dangers LGBT movements face around the world — we hold out as a security program.
We, and by “we” of course I mean the international segment of the LGBT movement, have to do better. Much better. Eric Ohena Lembembe’s death should make us do more than mourn, and calls us to condemn more than state inaction. We need to examine ourselves, what we’ve done and what we’ve left undone. International organizations need to return to their Southern partners for analysis and critique, with a much-made and superannuated promise to listen and learn: not just about strategy and method, but about the meaning of rights talk itself, what needs it stands for and how it performs in the open politics of movements as well as in the chambers of law.
I’m not too optimistic that this will happen. But the alternative to patiently educating ourselves is either becoming irrelevant, or a lot more pain.
Scott Long is a visiting fellow in the Human Rights Program at Harvard Law School, and has worked for decades as a human rights activist in Eastern Europe and Africa.